MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
All right. The political unrest in Hong Kong is banging at the gates of Taiwan. Thousands of Hong Kong protesters are seeking asylum there, but Taiwan has no asylum laws, which leaves asylum-seekers in a legal limbo. Taiwanese voters are conflicted about passing such laws. NPR's Beijing correspondent Emily Feng went to Taiwan and has the story.
EMILY FENG, BYLINE: In Hong Kong in July, hundreds of anti-government protesters broke into the region's Legislative Council Building. Fearing up to a decade of prison time, dozens soon fled here to Taiwan.
LAM WING KEE: (Through interpreter) They were not prepared at all. They're so young.
FENG: Lam Wing Kee is a Hong Kong bookseller. He left for Taiwan in April, believing a proposed Hong Kong law that could extradite criminal suspects might affect him. The bill set off the mass anti-government protests still roiling Hong Kong. The bill was shelved, but Lam is not returning to Hong Kong anytime soon.
LAM: (Through interpreter) Hong Kong has no rule of law anymore. I can no longer guarantee my personal safety there.
FENG: Lam was among five booksellers kidnapped from Hong Kong and spirited into mainland China by Chinese security officers in 2015. He was detained for publishing books on political topics banned in mainland China. Now in Taiwan, Lam's became a bit of a mentor to the newest wave of Hong Kong refugees who declined NPR's interview requests.
LAM: (Through interpreter) I help them understand Taiwan and if they have any fears, I will help them analyze these emotions if their fears are overblown.
FENG: Setting up a refugee policy to help people like Lam and the young Hong Kong protesters would also mean welcoming more mainland Chinese dissidents who would likely seek asylum in Taiwan. In the early 1990s, there were nearly a dozen cases of them hijacking airplanes to Taiwan seeking refuge. Most were imprisoned or sent back to mainland China. And many Taiwanese are not happy about the prospect of more mainlanders.
GUAN JIANREN: (Through interpreter) Mainland Chinese are even lazier than the locals. They come to Taiwan and they are useless.
FENG: Guan Jianren is a newspaper commentator and blogger who has written strongly against any asylum policy that accepts mainland Chinese citizens. He sees mainlanders as ill-mannered opportunists. He also fears Chinese communist spies could overwhelm Taiwanese immigration authorities.
GUAN: (Through interpreter) They only have to send 1 million more mainland Chinese over and our democratic values would be disrupted. So we need to have strict screening methods towards immigrants and especially political refugees.
FENG: These concerns are why several proposals to pass more concrete refugee law have been defeated. Freddy Lim is a death metal rocker who founded the New Power Party, an activist political group. In July, the party unsuccessfully proposed a refugee law. Now it's election season, and the issue is so sensitive, Lim won't firmly commit to supporting a law anymore. Here's how he explains his position.
FREDDY LIM: I think it's not the right moment to encourage them to go into exile because it will be like saying that their movement is a failure and ask them to abandon Hong Kong. And I don't think that's fair.
FENG: But without an asylum law, the Hong Kong refugees are in limbo. They can't work legally. They're on short-term tourist visas. And many are so young, they haven't even graduated from high school, making them ineligible for student visas. An informal network of churches and NGOs helps them out. And Taiwan's president and foreign ministers say they support allowing Hong Kong protesters to stay longer in Taiwan. Lam Wing Kee, the Hong Kong bookseller, is hopeful more lasting policy change will eventually result.
LAM: (Through interpreter) Taiwan cares about human rights. I know they will help the Hong Kong protesters with what they have.
FENG: Where there are elections, Lam says, there is democracy and where there is democracy, room for refugees like him.
Emily Feng, NPR News, Taipei, Taiwan.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUM'S "BLESSED BRAMBLES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.